A new rule imposed by the 78209 Farmers Market has stirred controversy between local vendors and management. The rule was developed by the San Antonio farmer’s market and restricts 78209 vendors from selling at other markets within two miles.

No other farmers market in the city has ever enforced a non-compete clause for farmers and food producers, and the rule could set a precedent for other markets to limit their vendors from selling elsewhere. The forced choice between markets has already led to an exodus of many vendors from 78209.

After the Quarry and then The Yard farmers market ended in spring of 2015, the Alamo Heights, Olmos Park, and Terrell Hills shoppers were left without a large market alternative. The 78209 Farmers Market filled that void every Sunday, after they opened for business in January.  Starting small, the location at the Carousel Court Shopping Center steadily gained vendors and notoriety because of the robust shopping base in the area.

Vendors sell at the Good Earth Farmers Market. Photo by Taylor Becken
Vendors sell at the Good Earth Farmers Market. Photo by Taylor Becken

Then a new competitor, Good Earth Farmers Market, announced plans to open a nearby on Saturdays in Alamo Heights, starting March 5.

Two weeks before Good Earth opened, Marco Guerrero, manager of the 78209 Farmers Market, held a mandatory meeting for all vendors: if they chose to participate in the other market, they would be ejected from 78209. The meeting contained heated arguments from both sides. It concluded with Guerrero storming out in front of all the vendors, saying that signing the agreement was their only option and no more discussion about it would be tolerated. A week later, as promised, vendors were presented with a mandatory agreement that stated “current vendors cannot exist, participate, or sell at any other market(s) within a two mile radius.” As of writing, Good Earth is the only market within two miles.

By March 5, four vendors had left 78209 as a result of the restriction.

Esther Foster, founder of PAWsitively Sweet Bakery, which bakes all-natural, chemical-free dog biscuits, was among the vendors who left the market.

“Allowing businesses to make decisions on where to sell themselves is necessary for our growth,” Foster said. “Businesses like ours have to change and adapt to succeed. We don’t know what markets are going to be better, and some of us need to sell at multiple markets to survive.”

Baked goods from Lucille's Croissants were on display at the 78209 Farmers Market. Photo by Scott Ball.

Stephen Paprocki, whose company Texas Black Gold Garlic also left the market due to the restriction, said that the rule was not conducive to successful farmers markets or the food community.

“Being able to bring goods from farms right there to you, that’s the whole point,” he said. “Being able to spread out and (sell at) other markets is what allows us to introduce the product to other markets and customers. If you only have one market, it’s not really accessible enough to grow. This rule ain’t right. I wasn’t going to do the other Alamo Heights market, but afterward he tried to make us sign off on that rule, I decided I would do it just to stick it to him.”

Guerrero, who defended the ruling, said that the new market “took the air out of the sails for a lot of these vendors, and the problem was that they felt like they were competing or selling to the same customer in the same neighborhood.”

Even if the Alamo Heights/Terrell Hills area was unable to support two farmers markets, Paprocki and Foster take issue with the assumption that a Saturday and Sunday market draw from the same crowd.

“People who do their shopping on Sunday are almost always different than those that do their shopping on Saturday,” Paprocki said. “I’ve been selling at the Pearl on both days since October and that’s been my experience.”

Foster visited the Good Earth Market on its opening day and asked more than 30 customers if they had ever been to the 78209 market. “Not a single person said yes,” she said. “It’s a totally difference audience. If they’re competing with anyone, it’s with the Castle Hills Farmers Market, which is also on Sunday.”

The final ruling was based on consensus, Guerrero argued. “The majority ruled that they didn’t want to participate in two markets. There were a few vendors who didn’t agree with the majority rule and they were asked to leave.”

Beautiful produce from 3G Farms  at the Quarry Farmers & Ranchers Market.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Beautiful produce from 3G Farms at the Quarry Farmers & Ranchers Market. Photo by Scott Ball.

The informal “vote” was conducted individually, with each vendor giving their one-on-one opinion to Guerrero. All seven vendors who were interviewed confirmed that there was no formal voting process that included the entire group together. Certain vendors, such as Paprocki and Foster, said they were never asked for their vote. It is important to note, however, that certain vendors were supportive of the rule.

While all of these vendors declined to go on the record, one was willing to be quoted anonymously.

“I knew I couldn’t be at the other market anyway so it was an easy choice,” said the vendor, who voted to support the ruling. “It’s just a small community, everyone knows each other, so the minute the other market came out, customers began asking me which market to go to. We just want different vendors to be at both so they can choose between different products. Otherwise, vendors will have to make the choice to make the same amount of money on one day or two by allowing the same customers to choose which day to come.”

During the conversation, they said, “I can see why the other vendors want another Saturday market because they need the money, though. For them, one market isn’t enough.”

Silvia Alcaraz, one of the founders of Cocina Heritage which sells homemade Mexican food, left the market after the rule was established.

“There are going to be farmers markets popping up all over the place,” she said. “As of March 5, there are 10 to 15 markets (being held) throughout the week in San Antonio. If vendors go to that Saturday market, they just can’t come to the 78209 market.  I think he has problems with the other market and the other guy.”

The other guy, Taylor Becken, is the market manager at Castle Hills and Good Earth. Becken said that the process of opening the Good Earth market took over a year. When asked if he wanted to impose a similar restrictions on vendors, he said, “I wouldn’t ever require that. It’s their business. I’m a vendor myself, and I know I would never sign that. Whenever we make decisions as a market, it’s about what’s the best for vendors.”

Nancy Fitch, manager of the Pearl Farmers Market, which is widely considered the most profitable and exclusive market, was asked if she would consider such restrictions for vendors.

“The Pearl would never stop a small business from selling somewhere else,” she said. “We’re there to help them grow, not to restrict them. We hope that all of our small vendors grow to be in more places, and to get to more people.”

The new Trinity farmers market is 3.25 miles away, the Castle Hills Farmers Market is about 4.25 miles away and the Pearl is less than 5 miles away.

“We felt that two miles was a range far enough,” Guerrero said. If the quarry market were to start again, they would be unaffected. When 78209 started, it was just for the neighborhood. We would love if the quarry market does again, because it brings more awareness to more markets, so more markets get more business.  Our rule only affects one other market, down the road.”

However, the rule may set a precedent.

Kale supplied by 9-1 Produce from Devine Texas. Photo by Scott Ball.
Kale supplied by 9-1 Produce from Devine Texas. Photo by Scott Ball.

“If we don’t stop this now, then other markets could force vendors to choose which market they’ll sell at and stop selling at the others,” Alcaraz said.

Mike Miller, owner of Madge’s Food Company, sells fermented foods at a number of markets, and was in the process of entering the 78209 market when he heard about the rule. After finding out about it, he canceled his application.

“In my mind, the customers should decide who the winners and losers are, and I don’t think that doing that kind of exclusivity would make that possible,” Miller said. “You don’t need to create exclusivity if the market is amazing. Vendors will follow the money. If your market is good, you’ll succeed. Competition makes you good, it makes you stronger.”


*Top Image: The 78209 Farmers Market which is located at Carousel Court at Richmond Oaks off of Nacogdoces Road.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.